For the more than half of the College Football Playoff's existence as a four-team format, few teams were as consistently present as the Clemson Tigers. Coach Dabo Swinney's ascent with the program he first joined in 2003, and later took over as the full-time coach in 2009, coincided with the sport's evolution into a new era. First came snapping a 20-year ACC championship drought in 2011; then, in 2013, came the program's first top-10 finish in the AP poll.
Recruiting was improving, and Swinney had sparked real change on the field thanks to the hires of offensive coordinator Chad Morris and defensive coordinator Brent Venables. When the playoff era began, the Tigers were peaking as a program. Clemson won six straight ACC championships from 2015-2020, appearing in the CFP in each of those seasons. The Tigers reached the national championship four times, twice winning it all against Nick Saban and Alabama. At points during a 29-game winning streak that spanned the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Clemson's status at the top of the sport seemed unshakeable.
But then the razor-thin margin for high-level success in college football was revealed. After losing just three regular-season games combined from 2015-2020, the Tigers lost five times across 2021 and 2022. After six straight top-four finishes in the AP poll, Clemson found itself finishing the year outside of the CFP and outside of the top 10.
The causes for this stumble came from many places, including a devastating series of injuries in 2021. However, the one area where fans and analysts alike could easily focus their criticism was the offensive side of the ball. Clemson ranked dead last in the ACC and No. 103 nationally in yards per play in 2021, with a slight improvement to 8th in the league and No. 72 nationally in 2022. The Tigers didn't always need to lead the ACC in offensive production to be a national title contender, but it was clear that what used to work was no longer as successful. So just like he did in 2011, Swinney began the 2023 offseason by changing the outlook for his program and hiring a top offensive mind from the outside.
Swinney dismissed OC Brandon Streeter, a former Clemson quarterback who joined the Tigers staff (for the second time) in 2015. He was the next up in a succession plan that had previously worked; Chad Morris, Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott were all replaced by internal promotions after taking coaching opportunities elsewhere. But with results sliding, Swinney quickly made the change and hired TCU OC Garrett Riley fresh off the Horned Frogs' run to the CFP National Championship. It was the first outside hire Swinney had made at that position since bringing in Morris back in 2011.
The 2022 Broyles Award winner, Riley worked with coach Sonny Dykes to flip TCU from a middling scoring offense to a top-10 unit in just one season with much of the same personnel. Riley was also the offensive coordinator with Dykes at SMU in 2020 and 2021, and three of those offensive units have finished in the top 15 nationally in points per game. In fact, if you combine the SMU squads from 2020-21 and the TCU group from 2022, Riley's offenses over the last three years avearaged 38.6 points per game. As noted by Clemson upon Riley's arrival, only two teams (Ohio State and Alabama) have a higher scoring average in that three-year span.
From a personnel perspective, Clemson does not have a ton of turnover outside of departing talent and the incoming recruiting class. The newcomers are worth noting, though, with three blue-chip true freshmen defensive linemen all on campus participating in spring practice. Peter Woods, Tomarrion Parker and Vic Burley all rank as top-10 defensive linemen from the 2023 recruiting cycle, and all have garnered praise for their readiness in the early stages of their college careers.
Names to know
- Cade Klubnik, quarterback: The former five-star prospect out of Austin, Texas, started his true freshman season as DJ Uiagalelei's backup. By the end of the year, he was leading Clemson to an ACC title and starting in the Orange Bowl. There were ups and downs in between, notably guiding the offense to a comeback win against Syracuse and then throwing his first career interception the following week in a loss at Notre Dame. Still, his athleticism, talent and ceiling have been obvious since last year's spring practice. The Klubnik-Riley relationship brings a Lone Star flavor to the Upstate, and on paper it promises to produce more explosive results.
- Antonio Williams, wide receiver: Drop-off at wide receiver represents another reason why Clemson's offense has faltered in recent years. If there was a hole in the depth chart, it has seemingly been filled by Williams, a somewhat undersized in-state prospect who finished his first season as the team's leader in receptions (56) and receiving yards (604) on the way to earning Freshman All-America honors. When compared to some of the big-bodied Cadillacs that have come through the program, Williams may seem small at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. However, his ball skills and ability to make a play after the catch — which is also a reason he contributes to the return game — are already at a high level. In an up-tempo, Air Raid-inspired offense, having players like Williams who can turn a 15-yard gain into a 50-yard gain can be the difference a good offense and an elite one.
- Peter Woods, defensive lineman: The focus has been on the offensive side of the ball, but the buzz around Woods after more than a handful of spring workouts is too strong to ignore. Omitting his name from anything associated with Clemson and spring practice would be malpractice, because he has a chance to add his name to the growing list of stellar defensive linemen to come through this program on their way to the NFL. Swinney has said that Woods is "already ahead of" where Bryan Bresee and Christian Wilkins were at this point in their careers, citing Woods' experience playing at the highest levels of 7A high school football in Alabama. Woods' high school team compiled a 50-5 record over his four years and won four straight state championships. It's no surprise that Swinney, an Alabama native, is going to take note of how that experience can prepare someone for big-time college football in the South.
The reviews from Clemson's installation process with Riley's offense have been positive across the board. Players and coaches alike have been energized by the up-tempo approach, and Swinney has been encouraged that the process has not been accompanied by a lot of procedural penalties. False starts, communication breakdowns and other errors made in the haste of getting to the line and snapping the ball represent some of the biggest risks of an up-tempo offense. So far, however, that does not seem to be the case.
"Coach Riley's doing a great job. I'm really pleased offensively. We've actually put a lot [of the offense] in," Swinney told reporters. "We've actually been able to get a lot done, and the biggest thing is procedurally we've actually been clean."
There is some terminology that's changing along with the speed, but this group of Tigers seems to be avoiding getting lost in translation.
"It's been good to get things installed, see guys catch on to what we're doing," Swinney added. "It's been fun."
In terms of what to expect from Clemson's offense with Riley at the helm, some answers might come from looking at the team that handed the Tigers a loss in the Orange Bowl. Klubnik was asked about his first impressions of the offense earlier this month, and he quickly mentioned Tennessee as an example of moving fast and taking deep shots down the field.
"You look at what Tennessee could do last year and everybody talked about how fast they played," Klubnik said earlier this month, per Clemson247. "I think that's going to be a lot similar to what we're going to be doing this year. Just the speed we can play at but also the efficiency. It's not just a bunch of guys running around trying to figure out what we're doing. Even in the first day of practice, after 10 minutes guys were running around and getting to the spot and snapping the ball 15 seconds later. I don't know the exact time.
"It's fun ... you're running around, getting set, snapping the ball and getting six yards then you're taking a shot," he continued. "Then six more, six more, then taking a shot. It's just fun, that's the best way to describe it. It's just a fun offense to play in."
Ultimately, Riley is all about simplicity and making it easy on the quarterback. They want to do what they do well, and then have a couple of counters when defenses make the expected adjustments. But if things are easy on the quarterback, it's going to manifest in more high-percentage throws and eventually deep-shot opportunities. Max Duggan's jump to one of the best quarterbacks in college football came in part because of how the offense was retooled under Riley's direction. With a ceiling like Klubnik's, we could see Clemson's offense explode in 2023.